This three-part article explores the topic of white privilege, how I came to acknowledge my privilege as a white woman, why this topic is relevant to Catholics, and how acknowledging my privilege affects and benefits my Catholic feminism.
“I don’t have white privilege,” I once shared in a large group discussion on race and privilege during a retreat put on by the multicultural affairs department of my small, private liberal arts college. It was my freshman year, and I was in for a rude awakening.
How I Discovered What “White Privilege” Is — and That I Have It
I was born and raised in Santa Monica, California. Santa Monica is characterized by its scenic beach proximity and affluence, while simultaneously having a significant homeless population and a less-acknowledged low-income population. My family belonged to this lower income group. I grew up in a rent-controlled apartment that my parents moved into in the early 1990s under Section 8 housing. I went to public school, and I qualified for free lunch in the cafeteria. Most of my clothes came from sale racks and thrift stores; I was picked on for wearing off-brand clothing. We didn’t take trips to Europe or anywhere outside the country. Neither of my parents attended college. My parents had been on food stamps and welfare, and my dad left when I was in 10th grade and my younger sister was only about 9 years old. So, I didn’t see myself as “privileged.”
In high school, I was accepted into a scholarship program that serves low-income, high-achieving students and pairs them with college counselors who help them with the college application and financial aid processes. I was the only white student in the program. I was accepted to my first-choice school, Reed College, which seemed like a school for quirky intellectuals who marched to the beat of their own drum. As part of its scholarship program, the multicultural affairs office at Reed College flew me out to campus as part of its “spring multicultural fly-in” program. I became friends with a number of the other prospective students during the fly-in, and many of us decided to attend Reed that fall.
My freshman year at Reed, I became a part of the peer mentor program (PMP). The PMP pairs first-year students with upperclass students who are students of color, first-generation college students or part of other underrepresented groups. Mentors meet regularly with their mentees, and even receive funds from the PMP to go off campus for outings. I was excited to attend the PMP retreat during my freshman year to be reunited with the friends I’d made during the multicultural fly-in and to learn about each other’s experiences.
During one discussion on the retreat, on the topic of privilege, we had the opportunity to share our questions, thoughts and responses. As a woman, it was easy for me to accept the idea of “male privilege” and to recognize that I did not have it. Male privilege is a term that refers to the unearned advantages that men often have, simply because they are men. This isn’t to say that nothing a man does is worked hard for or earned; however, it does acknowledge that there are certain advantages that help men to advance that are not available to women. Conversely, it implies that there are many obstacles women face that men do not have to deal with. (For a list of examples, see Barry Deutsch’s “Male Privilege Checklist,” inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack”). I could think back on many experiences where I felt that I was underestimated or disrespected due to my sex, and I still held feelings of pain and anger from times when I felt disempowered, thought to be less capable, or objectified by men.
However, when we arrived at the term “white privilege,” I had no frame of reference, and I felt the need to speak up.
“I don’t have white privilege,” I began. I explained that I grew up without wealth, surrounded by many classmates who had more than I did, and that I lacked many of the economic benefits I attributed to the word “privilege.” Before I could elaborate, many voices (particularly belonging to people of color) in the circle reacted with strong disagreement, and even anger, toward my sentiments.
A couple of the staff members, who were both black women I respected tremendously, began to explain to me why I was wrong in front of the entire group. To be honest, I don’t remember much of what they said but, rather, how it made me feel in the moment. My cheeks turned red, my heart started beating quickly, and I was caught off guard and mortified.
In that moment, I felt attacked. I was being told I was wrong and corrected in front of a large group of my peers and college administrators, which made me feel alone and embarrassed. I had always tried to be a good person, actively Catholic and trying to imitate Christ’s loving example. Here, I felt like I was being accused of perpetrating racism. I felt my sense of acceptance and belonging being threatened and felt the shame of disappointing the mentors I looked up to.
Frankly, though, I needed this humbling wake-up call.
When we broke into small group discussions, a black woman who was a year ahead of me patiently encouraged me to ask follow up questions. She gently asked me questions, too: Have you ever been in a class where the teacher assumed you didn’t know the right answer or weren’t as smart, simply because of your skin color? Have you often felt like you were the only person who looked the way you did in most of your classes and schools and activities? Have you ever had to struggle to think of examples of people of your race in a profession you aspired to? As she asked more questions, she began to tell me how she personally encountered all of these experiences. This conversation was the beginning of my coming to understand what white privilege was — and that I, indeed, had it.
What White Privilege Is and What It Isn’t
White privilege, like male privilege, means having many advantages that are unearned, simply because you are white in America. Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack” contains many of the examples that my friend had shared with me. White privilege stems from racism in our country’s past, and unacknowledged white privilege plays a role in perpetuating racism today. While slavery and Jim Crow laws might have been overturned, people of color are still not on equal footing with white people. We cannot expect the effects of overturned racist laws to disappear altogether, and racial inequality still exists in a very real way today.
Racism is “individual- and group-level processes and structures that are implicated in the reproduction of racial inequality” (Clair and Denis, 2015).
Racial bias is a conscious or unconscious prejudice against an individual or group based on their race.
Systemic racism is racism enacted through powerful groups or organizations like government, businesses, schools and even churches. In the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2017 document “Responding to the Sin of Racism,” the USCCB identifies racism as a sin and calls all the people of God to repentance, quoting a 2011 meeting of Christian Churches Together in the USA:“We call ourselves, our institutions, and our members to repentance. We make this confession before God and offer it to all who have endured racism and injustice both within the church and in society.”
The Bishops go on to say, “Racism is an attack on the image of God that has been given to every one of us by the Creator (Gen. 5:1-3). Because each person has been created by God, we are all united together with the Lord and with each other.”
Racism is a sin, but like all sin, it’s been in the world since before you entered it, and it came into the world through no fault of your own. While I did not invent racism, I am called to choose how I respond to it and unwittingly perpetuate it. Notice that I said choose. The fact that I have a choice is a privilege. In recognizing my privilege to choose, I feel convicted to acknowledge the small ways I commit the sin of racism daily.
While I did not invent racism, I am called to take responsibility for how I respond to it and unwittingly perpetuate it.
Microaggressions are “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (Psychology Today, 2010). Sometimes these comments might be benevolent or well-intended, but they ultimately may cause harm.
Examples of microaggressions include asking a person of color, “No, where are you really from?” or, “What are you?” or saying, “You’re pretty for a (insert race here) girl” or you don’t act like a (insert race here) person.” (This chart gives a helpful explanation of different forms of microaggression and the harmful implicit message of each.)
When I believed that I didn’t have white privilege, I was conflating it with socioeconomic status, one’s class or social standing based on income, level of education, or occupation. While we must reflect “on the persistence of racism in our country, and the role it has played in keeping many people in poverty” (USCCB, 2017), not all privileges are solely economic. In an article in US Catholic addressing Catholics’ need to own up to privilege, Kevin P. Considine, Ph.D., acknowledges that “power and privilege are not bad things in themselves. They are neutral, yet often infected by social and personal sin. Moreover, privilege cannot be fully renounced. It is conferred through an invisible social contract that is larger than my own ability to renounce, even though I desire to do so.”
In our small group,, my college friend continued to unpack more of her day-to-day experiences and how societal expectations, pressures and perceptions weighed on her own self-concept. If she didn’t perform academically as well as her classmates, she feared it reflected not just on herself but on their perception of her whole race. Most of her experiences did not involve the overt examples of racism that I had heard about in history classes and movies, but they were more subtle and pervasive. My feelings of self-concern and pride were replaced with feelings of compassion, empathy, and anger at the systems that unfairly privileged me and people of my race while hurting people of other races.
Sometimes, white people believe that “not seeing color” is a way to be helpful and eliminate racism. But our differences are part of our experience, identity, and story. By remaining blind to distinctions, we may be distancing ourselves from God, because we fail to see the God’s Image uniquely manifested in each person. Furthermore, “colorblindness,” as it’s called, is not the answer because when we ignore race, we also may ignore or miss racism.
By remaining blind to distinctions, we may be distancing ourselves from God, because we fail to see the God’s Image uniquely manifested in each person.
Because white people in the U.S. don’t experience many of the disadvantages that people of color do, they can be oblivious to racism in daily life, find the status quo acceptable, and become complicit in enabling the systems of privilege to continue (Fryberg and Stephens, 2010). A “colorblind” white person might miss an opportunity to intervene when a person of color is experiencing an act of racism by another person or dismiss someone’s experiences rather than affirming them. As Catholics, we are called to be builders of the Kingdom of God, here and now. Accepting the status quo goes against our call as disciples.